“Now, looking back to my ovarian cancer diagnosis, I realize my experience should be what is considered the ‘standard of care’ and not the exception. My doctors listened to me and didn’t “write me off,” as I know can happen. Once it was determined I most likely had a serious situation on my hands, I was taken into surgery quickly. My “story” should be everyone’s story – except for the ultimate ‘story’ ending, where we find an early screening test, and even better a cure!
As a Nurse Practitioner, I had heard of ovarian cancer but was not very knowledgeable from a medical standpoint. My specialty is Neurosurgery acute care; talk to me about the brain and spine, but not gynecology – at least not before my diagnosis. My family history didn’t include ovarian or anything gynecological either. But, leading up to my diagnosis, I had been experiencing episodes of sporadic bleeding, which was consistent with being perimenopausal, which I was. When I began to experience heavier bleeding – to the point where it would feel like I was hemorrhaging- my gynecologist immediately thought I might have uterine cancer and suggested I get a biopsy. The bleeding episodes were happening without warning, and my gynecologist and I decided an elective hysterectomy would be needed. But before the surgery happened, I also then began to experience bloating. This was new, and almost instantly, the pain was incredible, making me double over. My gynecologist was quick enough to state that these symptoms were not consistent with uterine cancer and ordered a CT scan of my chest, abdomen, and pelvis. I was scheduled for surgery the following week. I was then transferred to the care of a gynecological oncologist.
What was supposed to be an elective robotic hysterectomy was now an invasive open surgery. My gynecologist, who had treated me since I was a teenager, and who had delivered both my sons, was so upset he could hardly get the words out; ‘I’m so sorry, it is cancer. ‘They would take out my omentum, lymph nodes that looked suspicious, and they biopsied what looked like spots on my liver and spleen. My surgery would reveal a 10-centimeter mass on my ovaries as well as uterine cancer being present. My husband remembers being told, “It was bad.”
My husband was stoic, and it was only recently, and after I recovered, that he revealed he had the thoughts that most partners do – am I going to lose her? Will I raise my children alone? But he never let on and supported me in every way possible. Thankfully the lymph nodes were negative for cancer, and the ‘spots’ and everything that appeared to be abnormal, thankfully, were normal. The findings were due to the fact my tumor had ruptured, which made everything look ‘off .’Finally, a diagnosis was made – I had two primary cancers: Stage 1 Uterine Cancer and Stage 2c Ovarian Cancer. I was now left to weigh the treatment options. Despite having low-stage cancers, the fact that there were two primary cancers was a concern, as well as the exposure to the toxins from my tumor rupturing. So I underwent six rounds of chemotherapy.
To be honest, the time I was in treatment was a complete blur to me. I remember the initial shock of losing my hair in the shower, but after that, I was okay with my loss of hair. I continued to work, and the driving force was that I did not want to be the patient. I continued as the one to care for patients, and this most likely helped me manage my own fears by putting my energy into others. My co-workers were amazing, as well as my family and friends in helping. At work, I would take my break and nap when needed, and friends and family cooked meals and took my children to school. To this day, I have no idea how my children got to where they had to go – it just happened. I almost feel the experience is somewhat like childbirth; when it is over, you don’t remember the pain – or at least not the full extent. Part of me feels like God protected me during this time, and I don’t remember much. I would come home from work, and there was dinner ready for the family. I also realize this isn’t the norm for everyone, and I am beyond grateful to everyone who pitched in to help – it was lifesaving! Truly!
Still, as an RN Provider, when I was told I had ovarian cancer, my initial thought was, “Are you kidding”? I didn’t have a family history; I had children…I couldn’t believe this was happening. But looking back, I can see in photos how bloated I was, only to quickly lose weight without explanation. I told myself, ‘How great it is to lose weight without trying’! Hindsight is always “20/20”.
So why NOCC TEAM TEAL and Mount Kilimanjaro? It is now five years since my diagnosis, and I feel I am in a place to be able to give back. I am no longer on edge or afraid as I once was. I am super grateful my gynecologist listened to me. But I also know the fact that I work in healthcare was one reason I was taken seriously (in addition to having a great gynecologist!). I want to do what I can so that others are diligent with their health, and if sharing my story and raising funds can help – I will do it! One day when I was at work wearing a teal butterfly pin, a co-worker approached me and asked me about the pin. She would then tell me that she, too, was an ovarian cancer survivor! Ironically, we both applied to be on the team for Kilimanjaro, were both accepted, and went from being work acquaintances to good friends! So, this year will be full circle, as the symptoms I started experiencing years ago – started during a hike. I want those who are diagnosed to know it can be okay; there is hope. You might not be able to see it now, but it will get better. There is still so much to be grateful for in life, and don’t ever doubt your own possibilities. Be your own advocate!
Nicole lives in Texas with her husband and two sons. She has raised over $14,000 toward her goal of $37,341 to represent the 37,341 steps to the top of Kilimanjaro in support of the NOCC. To read more about her story or to support Nicole, visit her fundraising page here.